I need my wits about me today. If I’m not careful it has the makings of the least romantic Valentine’s day since I forgot to make a plan and ended up in a cold, frosty corner of Zizzi’s with a very hungry and VERY unimpressed girlfriend.
The agenda consists of checking out of our quiet, comfy hotel with its wonderful rooftop yoga platform in the small paradise that is Varkala in time for an eight hour train to Khozikode (AKA Calicut), which I expect to be a drab, uneventful stop-off en route to Wayanad. I’m trusting in a morning trip to the beach and trainside views of India’s South West coast to add the requisite sparkle.
“Stand 18, and it’s in at 10.14, out at 10.15, no mucking about!”
The perky bald Englishman and his wife are, by the sounds of my eavesdropping, in the same carriage on the same train as us. Rebecca is off looking for her own confirmation but after a brief conflab I confirm that yes, the couple are in B-2 and, yes, it arrives at stand 18 further down the platform – the ticket man said so.
“And remember,” he adds leaning towards me conspiratorially, “it’s in at 10.14, out at 10.15, no mucking about!”
As it turns out, the pair have seats 1 and 4 to our 2 and 3 (if you’re wondering why that’s how the seat allocations, or indeed anything else to do with the bureaucracy of the Indian railways work, don’t. Really, don’t. Just… enjoy your life instead). They’re originally from London and now based near Ipswich. Cathy is a freelance garden designer who also writes, non-professionally, on the side, and she offers lots of advice on getting my own work proofread.
Jim smiles broadly as he tells us he’s past retirement age and is now “coasting” for an industrial refridgeration company. “I’m in four days a week!” he beams, with the enviable but entirely wholesome, unhateable contentment of someone who has worked their way to easy street.
I call him Jim, but unlike Cathy we never find out his name. I settle on Jim because it suits him: he looks like a Jim, shiny-headed and happy-eyed. Goes well with Cathy, too: Cathy and Jim, Jim and Cathy.
I think about ordering train food, then spot a cockroach loitering under a nearby berth. My flip-flops stick to the toilet floor through the suction of the fluid that covers it. Lovely blissful Europhile Varkala has spoiled me. I’m very much Back In India. Thankfully, Rebecca downloaded all the Harry Potters on Kindle Unlimited the other day and is face down in Prisoner of Azkhaban, dead to the outside world and the decidedly unromantic Valentine’s day surroundings it’s served up for her.
It’s late and I’m hungry by the time we arrive in Khozikode, but there’s good vibes nonetheless. The auto driver charges 30Rs to take us to our hotel rather than the standard tourist-newly-arrived-at-station, 100-no-matter-how-short-the-distance rip-off we’d encountered elsewhere. As in Trichy we’ve unwittingly booked into a fairly nice, comfy hotel – the Medora. It looks a bit seedy from the outside with its neon purple sign, but inside it’s clean, comfy, well-equipped (our room has its own kettle – the luxury!) and there’s a decent restaurant and coffee bar. Best of all, the lobby and restaurant are playing smooth jazz covers of Christmas carols. There’s a certain charm about a saxophone blaring out Let It Snow on a 33C February evening.
I’m unexpectedly sorry to leave Khozikode after just one night. It seems an interesting and good-natured town, bright and bustling in the morning sunlight. The centre of Kerala’s links with the Gulf states, it’s visibly well-off: every third shop is selling gold jewellery and there’s a good sprinkling of Samsung dealerships. I daydream, on my way to a cash point next to a KFC near the bus station, about an anthropological study of India’s growing middle class and global diaspora based in the town.
We board the already full bus to Mananthavady and have to split up to find seats. I squish in next to a podgy middle-aged man, forcing him to shuffle up closer to his podgier-still mother. They don’t look at all happy at the prospect of sharing the narrow seat with a broad-shouldered gora for the next three hours. After a few stops the guy in the seat next to that reserved for the ticket inspector disembarks and I nab it. This has the extra advantage of sheltering me from the usual predictable tirade of questions about my career and marital status that accompany Indian bus journeys, as the inspector is up and down too frequently to strike up conversation.
Rebecca fares very differently. Seating herself further forward she is quickly pounced upon by a friendly, fast-talking sixteen-year-old named Kesia. Originally from Kerala, Kesia’s family now live in Kuwait where she is at school and hopes to become a doctor. She is back in India visiting her aunt and uncle, who watch on as their niece peppers Rebecca with a barrage of questions.
“How old are you? Do you have a husband? How old is your boyfriend? What is your profession? What is your religion? Do you believe in evolution? Is that your natural hair colour?”
These essential facts established, she proceeds to a round of Name That Pop Song.
“Do you know this song? ‘Cause if you like the way you look that much, baby you should go and love yourself.‘”
“Yes, that’s Justin Bieber.”
“Yes! Do you know this song? ‘Never mind I’ll find someone like you?'”
“Yes, that’s Adele.”
“Yes! Do you know this song..?”
This continues for two hours until Kesia’s battery flattens and she falls asleep on Rebecca’s shoulder for the final hour of the journey.
Blissfully unaware of all this, I gaze out of the window at dramatically undulating landscape as we climb once again back into the Western Ghats, in the northern, forested district of Wayanad. The terrain is a lush blend of spice and tea rather than monoculture but besides that it’s reminiscent of the approach to Munnar: endless teak furniture shops; Greenmart stores and Dreamview hotels; adverts for “Fresh Up” rooms that charge by the hour and mattress companies boasting “Keeping you cool, even if your partner is hot”.
We pass a succession of gaudy churches, fronted by huge statues of Jesus. Beside them mosques broadcast their sermons through loudspeakers and, like the surrounding jungle, the milieux feels harmonious despite this morning’s news of a terrorist attack in Kashmir yesterday that claimed the lives of at least 37 Indian military personnel, effectively throwing an oil can at the embers of Indo-Pakistani tensions.
It’s my birthday, and that means a giant breakfast and going to see Some Old Stuff. And I mean Really Old Stuff: specifically the Eddakal Caves and their carved images, dating from 3,000-6,000 years ago.
There’s a bit of a walk to get there: our driver Sanji drops us at a kind of base camp from which there’s an ascent of over a thousand steps to reach the cave. The climb provides stunning views of Wayanad, nestled cosily in the vast basin between seven mountain peaks, as well as of troupes of macaques terrorising tourists into surrendering half-eaten choc ices.
The cave itself is an entrancing place formed by the wedging of an enormous boulder between two walls of a fissure. The space created is cool and ethereal, if inevitably too overrun with crowds of chattering visitors to be genuinely evocative. It’s hard to know what the carvings represent without reference to the guide book, so stylised are they, but I get a huge thrill just from being somewhere that was clearly so significant for people over such a long period of time, so long ago. The oldest images, of unknown and unknowable meaning, pre-date any of India’s major religions or civilisations, but fascinatingly there is Sanskrit text among the later inscriptions. If you knew what to look for you could stand here and watch the root forms that still underpin all of Indian culture seep down to this prehistoric people from the Himalayan foothills nearly three thousand kilometres away.
We ask Sanji his recommendation for an understated birthday lunch and he stops at a hotel in Sultan Bathery on our way back to the Varnam homestay. He joins us, boisterously imploring the waiters to scoop continual ladlefuls of curry onto our thalis despite our protests, then takes pictures of Rebecca and I drinking Thumbs Up.
Varnam Homestay is a beautiful, secluded spot in the grounds of a 15 hectare organic farm owned and managed by the quick-witted Beena and her husband Varghese. In the afternoon Beena treats me, Rebecca and Eloc, the friendly Turin-based Bavarian lady also staying at the homestay, to a tour of the farm. Until now we haven’t realised that the garden we’ve been casually relaxing in is home to over 37 types of fruits and vegetables (from avocados and cabbages to pineapples, jackfruit, ten species of banana and a flurry that I never knew existed, like rose apples, cashew fruit and the delicious chikoo); 28 herbs and spices with a variety of culinary, medicinal and commercial applications including henna, arrowroot, white and yellow turmeric, blue basil and lemongrass; and crop trees like cacao, coffee, rubber and sandalwood. They keep five cows, whose slurry is converted to biogas that fuels the kitchen, as well as over eighty chickens and, as of this morning, about two dozen ducklings. There are three swimming pool-sized fish ponds containing natter, varal and tilapia, and a large stretch of rice paddies which, thanks to the drying climate, now produce one less harvest annually than they used to.
The farm is entirely organic and produces enough to feed Beena’s family, six workers and the homestay’s guests. I suddenly understand why the food they’ve been serving is so delicious.
The living room / entrance is perhaps four metres square, walled with grey plaster and adorned with images of Jesus and calendars of photos of three year-old Alna and her brother Rikesh. Alna peers at the strangers from beneath her short, sassy haircut, cradled in her mother Dhanya’s arms while her father, Bibin, tells the guests about his farm. At the mention of every spice Bebi, Bibin’s scrawny, smiling father, hops up to indicate peppercorns drying on a tarp outside, to haul in a 40kg sack of coffee beans or an armful of fragrant, drying vanilla pods while his wife Varya, Alna’s grandmother, beams quietly in the corner and brings the visitors chai and bananas.
Smaller than Beena’s but with a greater focus on high-value spices, the farm is likewise completely organic and its produce is exported as far as South Africa, Europe and Australia. The vanilla pods – labour-intensive to grow and taking years to dry to perfection – fetch up to 10,000 rupees per kilo.
Eloc bumped into Bibin this morning after getting lost on her walk down to the Kabini river and he promised to show her its better, less touristy side this afternoon. With Rebecca declining in favour of practising yoga back at the homestay, I accompany Eloc for a walk by the river which, after accepting gifts of a cashew nut and a vanilla pod from Bebi, we stroll down to with Bibin, Dhanya and Anla.
The scene is picturesque; a broad, stately river divides itself around sandy islets, forking at the mangrove trees that fringe Kuruna Island. Set back from the bank is a “tribal” village, from which women have made for the river’s edge to beat laundry against the rocks. This surprises me as Bibin tells us the bank is often home to twelve-foot-long crocodiles. If we’re lucky, we’ll see them.
“From a safe distance, right?”
He laughs and points to Anla toddling near the bank about ten yards ahead. “I’m happy to bring my daughter here. You’ll be fine”.
We see no crocodiles, but plenty of evidence of the devastation wreaked on the bank and the tribal village by the flooding last August. The entire village had to be evacuated to a nearby school for three weeks, and returned to find many of the ground floors of their homes gutted, crumbling foundations exposed by and to the elements. The path we walk along is a deep, sandy trench, churned and rutted like the surface of the moon. Bibin tells us it used to be a road. In Varkala and other parts of Kerala we’ve heard the floods and their sensationalised coverage in Western media led to a 50% fall in tourism, which we thought was bad enough. Here, they destroyed lives.
It’s hard to imagine such destructive violence coming from something as tranquil as the water meandering silently and serenely beside us. India, through, is a shrewd haggler who gives nothing away for free. Every idyllic beach is sprinkled with refuse; every towering monument thronged with maimed and wailing beggars; every gorgeous languid river bend capable of unleashing torrents of sweeping fury. As in The White Tiger, light and darkness are always side by side.
In the evening Beena regales us with hilarious rapid-fire tales about her eighteen month old German shepherd Mowgli eating all the frogs in the pond and refusing to stop sleeping in the rabbit cage they bought him as a puppy. The topic then turns to Indian politics. Rahul, a guest at the homestay from Trivandrum, tells us soberly that the country is still plagued by corruption to the tune of billions of rupees. The BJP-led central government not only benefit from this but also exploit the constitution to frustrate rival parties – so Kerala’s Communist party government has its funding restricted by the Hindu nationalist central government.
Violence and religion are weaponised in politics, he says: “If you say something is in the name of God, you can make people do anything”.
While this conversation takes place, two Congress Party (Kerala’s CPM government’s main opposition) youth activists known as Kripesh and Sarath Lal – aged 21 and 27 respectively – attend a local party meeting in Kasargod, about 200km from Wayanad. On their way home they are stopped by an SUV full, according to local news reports, of CPM activists, and hacked to death with a sword.
Wayanad sleeps, calm and quiet.